While Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden may be grabbing headlines before the Iowa caucuses next Monday, no 2020 candidate is spending more on the digital ad war than President Donald Trump and Democratic contender Mike Bloomberg.
The importance of the digital-ad wars in shaping the national voting map is coming into sharper focus as Bloomberg looks past the first four states holding Democratic votes next month – Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada – to instead aim for a strong showing on Super Tuesday and the general election against Trump.
Trump has spent $36 million so far on digital spending on Google and Facebook, according to ACRONYM, the ad-spending research firm, more than Biden, Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg combined. But Bloomberg is catching up quickly, and is on pace to surpass the president's total. The former New York mayor, a billionaire who is self-funding his campaign, has already spent $34 million on digital ads on Facebook and Google.
The spending gap between the between Trump and the Democrats online underscores one of the main reasons Bloomberg decided to run. According to the Bloomberg campaign, one of Trump's keys to victory in 2016 was his effectiveness in digital advertising and social media – a skill that his campaign have honed and expanded even further over the past four years.
"Where 'Trump' is really strong is in digital," said Kevin Sheekey, Bloomberg's campaign manager. "He has built a campaign that is probably running a decade ahead of anyone else on the Democratic side to meet voters wherever they are, and they have been very smart about it."
But again, according to Sheekey, Bloomberg isn't far behind Trump on this score. "Bloomberg is maybe eight years ahead. So we're gaining ground. But he's still ahead," he said.
At the center of the digital strategy for both the Trump and Bloomberg campaigns is data collection – finding voters who may be receptive to a certain political message and then delivering ad content designed to win their vote.
While the Cambridge Analytica scandal cast a pall over the business of buying and exploiting social-media data for political influence, data mining and ad targeting will be crucial in the 2020 presidential race. Cambridge Analytica was a British political consulting firm that acquired and used data on Facebook users for political messaging and did work for Trump's 2016 campaign, prompting multiple investigations and questions about user privacy on social media.
Trump's operation has focused much of its digital campaign on swing states or states with a strong Trump voter base. Fully 8% of Trump's digital ad-spending, or nearly $3 million, over the past two months has been in Texas, followed by 7% in Florida. Ohio and Pennsylvania both got about 4% of his spending. Trump won all four states in 2016. Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida are often considered swing states. Texas is reliably red, yet Democrats made substantial gains there during the 2018 congressional elections.
Bloomberg, who made his nearly $60 billion in net worth from financial data, proved his digital advertising prowess in Virginia, where his data collection and ad spending helped flip the state government from Republican to Democrat for the first time in decades. As CNBC reported last month, Bloomberg is building a digital-ad company embedded in the campaign, called Hawkfish, that's staffed with several former top Silicon Valley executives and is expected to lead a national ad campaign that could total $100 million or more.
Bloomberg has spent the most in California, with 9%, followed by 7% in Texas, 5% in North Carolina and 5% in Virginia, and about 4% in Minnesota and Pennsylvania.
Sheekey said that in addition to outspending and outsmarting Democrats online, Trump is also able to get an early start on the national election and rallying his base, rather than focusing just on the early swing states.
"Trump is not just investing in swing states and base voters in battleground states while Democrats are focusing on Iowa – which is a state that Trump will win anyway," he said.